Attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) is the most common neurodevelopmental disorder of childhood. However, basic information about how the prevalence of ADHD varies by race/ethnicity, sex, age, and socio-economic status remains poorly described. One reason is that difficulties in the diagnosis of ADHD have translated into difficulties developing an adequate case definition for epidemiologic studies. Diagnosis depends heavily on parent and teacher reports; no laboratory tests reliably predict ADHD. Prevalence estimates of ADHD are sensitive to who is asked what, and how information is combined. Consequently, recent systematic reviews report ADHD prevalence estimates as wide as 2%-18%. The diagnosis of ADHD is complicated by the frequent occurrence of comorbid conditions such as learning disability, conduct disorder, and anxiety disorder. Symptoms of these conditions may also mimic ADHD. Nevertheless, we suggest that developing an adequate epidemiologic case definition based on current diagnostic criteria is possible and is a prerequisite for further developing the epidemiology of ADHD. The etiology of ADHD is not known but recent studies suggest both a strong genetic link as well as environmental factors such as history of preterm delivery and perhaps, maternal smoking during pregnancy. Children and teenagers with ADHD use health and mental health services more often than their peers and engage in more health threatening behaviors such as smoking, and alcohol and substance abuse. Better methods are needed for monitoring the prevalence and understanding the public health implications of ADHD. Stimulant medication is the treatment of choice for treating ADHD but psychosocial interventions may also be warranted if comordid disorders are present. The treatment of ADHD is controversial because of the high prevalence of medication treatment. Epidemiologic studies could clarify whether the patterns of ADHD diagnosis and treatment in community settings is appropriate. Population-based epidemiologic studies may shed important new light on how we understand ADHD, its natural history, its treatment and its consequences.
Copyright 2002 Wiley-Liss, Inc.